A war too easy to forget
Commenting recently about seeing the play “War Horse,” one of my 11th-grade students expressed surprise that “even some of the Nazis had humane feelings” for the plight of animals caught up in war.
“It's about the first World War,” I replied. “There weren't any Nazis in that one.”
“No Nazis?” He sounded disappointed. “Darn!”
It is not the first time kids in my history classes have misplaced the Nazis. So now is a good time to explore why young people conflate the world wars — why World War II eclipses World War I in their view of the past.
Today marks the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which triggered World War I. Historians are having a field day with new studies of the Great War that identify it as the starting point for almost every significant global event since, from terrorism to genocide. Europeans are commemorating the anniversary with pomp, circumstance and curricular attention in schools.
Americans, however, continue to dwell on other conflicts — mainly the Civil War and World War II. Both are labeled “good wars” because one eradicated slavery and the other fascism, thus justifying the profuse violence and mass death. So the standard lesson goes.
We conceptualize our past as dominated by three fights for freedom: the Revolutionary War, symbolized by the Washington Monument at one end of the Mall; the Civil War, enshrined in the Lincoln Memorial at the other end; and World War II, with its memorial in the middle. Wars that complicate the theme either get relegated to the periphery, as are Vietnam and Korea, or omitted altogether, as is World War I.
“Good wars” make for monumental stories, but they do not invite complexity of thought.
From a Socratic perspective, World War I offers perfect material for asking hard questions. How, for instance, could a relatively inconsequential act of terrorism committed by a teenage extremist from the margins of Europe drag the great powers into conflict? How did the bombing of cities, mass conscription, modern propaganda techniques, poison gas and the starvation of civilians by blockade come to be seen as acceptable, even essential, behavior?
Public schools today exemplify distractedness. Politicians, pundits and the authors of the Common Core standards insist that schools prepare kids “to compete in the global economy” and attain “21st-century skills.” In frenzies of test preparation, current events and a lot of history get lost.
I doubt that understanding the Great War will help young people “compete in the global economy.” In fact, insight into that war's causes might lead kids to rethink entirely international competition as an educational goal. Yet I believe that wrestling with that war's complexity will make for better citizens — thoughtful and cautious about letting a president take us to war, concerned with the “collateral damage” inherent to modern conflict, and able to consign Nazis to their proper historical place.
I cannot pretend to know what educational leaders have in mind when advocating for 21st-century skills, but my students keep showing me how the intellectual richness of studying the Great War trumps “good war” history.
Christopher L. Doyle teaches history at Watkinson School in Hartford, Conn.